Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Officially wasting time

My kids get out of school next Friday, but school shut down for them a couple of weeks ago.  For my high school daughter the end of school was really the day she finished taking AP Exams.  Since then, her AP classes have been watching movies, talking, etc.  And even when they have looked at content, the kids can hardly engage because the big things have passed.

My daughter in junior high school finished learning about a week ago when the school started its end-of-year celebrations and teachers asked students to turn in textbooks.  An my daughter in elementary school is into the field trip/ field day/teacher appreciation part of the year.

Given that public schools are required to provide 180 days of instruction, and given that those 180 days are generally seen as being insufficient, at least for struggling students, it is a mystery to me why school wraps up several weeks before classes end.  Of course I am not the only person to ask this.  Legislators, parents, and teachers ask it all the time.

I do not want to argue that there is something wrong with doing little in class on particular days.  Every course I teach starts with 1 to 2 class periods spent connecting students, discovering their hopes and fears, and building relationships with them, before we dive into official "learning."  And the final day of class is often given over to reflection.  And it seems likely that lulls in learning both help prepare students for more, and give them space to process what they have learned.

 So my question about shutting down early in public schools is not why it happens exactly, but what end it serves.  Is there some intellectual/social/cultural/interpersonal benefit to ending learning before school ends?  If so, what is it?  If not, are there better times to "waste time" in the classroom? Is it better to do it at the beginning of the year?  At the end?  Or is it better to waste it with older students than with younger ones?

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